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Accord reached on farmworkers for immigration bill

The deal would establish a new 'blue card' for workers already in the U.S. It concludes one of the last major components of sweeping legislation being drafted in the Senate.

April 12, 2013|By Brian Bennett and Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) brokered an accord between farm labor unions and growers on a bill proposing conditions, wages and visas for migrant agricultural workers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) brokered an accord between farm labor… (Eric Risberg, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — Agreement was reached late Friday between farm labor unions and growers on one of the last major components of a sweeping immigration bill being drafted in the Senate — a deal that would set the terms of wages, visas and working conditions for migrant agriculture workers.

The accord, struck after weeks of touch-and-go talks between representatives of industry leaders and workers and brokered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would establish a new "blue card" for migrant workers already in this country without legal permission, and allow up to 336,000 visas for farmworkers.

The three-part package is hugely important for California's agriculture industry. It will be folded into a comprehensive immigration overhaul being written by a bipartisan group of eight senators, who are aiming to unveil the far-reaching legislation as soon as Tuesday.

Feinstein, who is not one of the eight, led the farmworker effort with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who are part of the broader group, and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), her longtime partner on agricultural worker immigration issues.

"All have come together to endorse this agreement," Feinstein said in a statement announcing the deal.

Talks had been underway for months, but hit a logjam as growers pushed for lower wages and fewer limits on visas and farm labor unions sought higher wages and visa caps.

Ultimately, growers achieved both their goals, with more visas and slightly lower wages than in earlier offers, according to two sources familiar with the talks. In exchange, labor leaders secured a longer visa and requirements that growers pay housing and transportation costs.

Both sides saw the final product — for an industry in which as many as half of the 1 million workers nationwide are in the country without legal permission — as a compromise.

Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, who represented a consortium of growers in the negotiations, said in an interview late Friday the deal was "a positive step in the direction for ensuring agriculture has access to a stable and legal workforce."

"It is very much a compromise," Giev Kashkooli, a national vice president for United Farm Workers, agreed in a telephone interview. "We are convinced it will not reduce farmworker wages, and it will — we hope — lead to a new era of stability for agriculture."

Farmworkers already in the country without legal status would be eligible to apply for a new type of permanent residency called a blue card, according to those familiar with the agreement.

The process, which would require at least two years of farm work and a commitment to work in agriculture for at least another five years, would start the recipient down the path to citizenship. It would likely be faster than applying for a green card.

The minimum wage rate would be set nationally for six categories defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with set minimum pay scales.

Growers would also have to pay visa holders for transportation in and out of the country, as well as a housing allowance, if adequate housing is not provided.

For future workers, new agricultural visas would be issued for three years, with 112,000 available each year. Five years after the start of the visa program, the secretary of Agriculture would set the annual number of visas based on labor market data.

Senators were still debating whether agricultural workers would be able to bring spouses and children on the visa.

Kashkooli said it was historic to see the 10 senators — five Democrats and five Republicans — commit to a deal that creates legal status for farmworkers who are in the U.S. unlawfully.

But not all senators who were party to the agricultural deal have committed to the comprehensive legislation, which will include stronger border security, visas for other industries and a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people who entered this country without proper paperwork or overstayed their visas.

"While I understand this will be included in the Gang of 8 proposal, no one should assume that I'm backing their overall plan," Hatch said in a statement, even as he welcomed the accord between farmers and workers that "only weeks ago didn't seem possible."

Rubio did not comment, waiting for the final bill.

Bennet called the agreement "a crucial step as momentum builds toward introducing a bill" to fix what he called a "broken" immigration system.

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